The seal pup development project began in the summer 2010. The study is being carried out on a voluntary basis in association with Tara Seal Research. The aim of the project is to try to understand and define 'well-being' in pups and the social and physical environments in which well-being may be maximised. The behaviour and body language of pups which we think indicates 'well-being' is already described in the section on pups' well-being under general care in rehab. However, these behavioural indices, and - conversely - behaviours and body language suggestive of stress or lack of well-being, may not be universally recognised.
The project is beginning with a quantitative assessment of the behavioural development of pups of the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina). This is being done by taking video of pups in the wild throughout the pupping season. Video clips are then analysed for the types of behaviour and the occurrence and duration of different behaviours. The same behaviours are recorded also in 'spot checks' taken at intervals by still photos. This quantitative description of pup development may then be used as a baseline for comparison with similar quantitative descriptions of the development of pups in rehabilitation in different conditions (i.e. pups kept alone/socially, with/without water, etc). The development of pups at a rehabilitation centre was recorded for the first time in this project during the 2010 pupping season. If the analysis of this preliminary study proves the method to be useful, we hope to extend this study to harbour seals in other rehabilitation facilities from the 2011 season onwards. We are also looking into possibilities for non-invasive assaying of levels of oxytocin, oxidative stress and cortico-steroids from saliva, urine or faeces of pups kept in different conditions. This would give an insight into the physiological well-being of pups, and could be correlated with different conditions of care which offer different social and physical environments. The hormonal study would be carried out in parallel with behaviour studies. Eventually we hope to extend the study to other species commonly held in rehabilitation, such as the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) and the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus). Lessons learned may eventually help in rehabilitation and care of pups of endangered species such as monk seals.
Progress on this project will be updated on this page. Data from different facilities will be analysed according to species, age, and rehabilitation procedures. All participating facilities and individuals will be acknowledged in project reports.
Project project update: In the summer 2012 we were fortunate to be able to carry out a lot of filming and studies of pups in both rehabilitation and captivity.
With many thanks to the Esbjerg Museum and Aquarium in Denmark, we were able to follow the development of an aquarium-born harbour seal pup and his mother with CCTV cameras and video. Later in the summer, and thanks to Natureland in Lincolnshire, we were also able to record the development of a second aquarium-born pup and mother. This footage will be analysed for behaviour and activity budget.
With many thanks - again to Natureland and also to Mablethorpe seal sanctuary in Lincolnshire - we were able to carry out a feasibility study for answering the question: Do orphan pups in rehabilitation need a companion? A report on this study can be downloaded from http://www.sealresearch.org/research/publications/behaviour-studies. Also at Natureland and Mablethorpe we were able to obtain samples of saliva, urine and faeces from orphan pups. The saliva and urine are being analysed for biomarkers of 'stress' at the University of Lincoln and the faeces will soon be analysed also for 'stress' biomarkers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. The oxytocin study is on hold until the summer of 2013, when we hope to carry this out in collaboration with our colleagues at the seal rehabilitation centre in Friedrichskoog, Germany.